A sustainable tuna fishery? Traditional trap fishers in Sardegna say yes.

The tonnarotti of Portoscuso pulling up the nets during a tuna transfer. Photography courtesy of Shannon Cosentino-Roush

Some people’s parents pass on to their children a love for skiing, some a love for cooking, my father passed along to me a love for tuna.  By love for tuna, I don’t mean a love for eating spicy tuna rolls or a love that makes me anti-fishing, it more is the kind of love that makes me wear a tuna necklace and travel to Sardegna (Sardinia) to spend a month at a traditional tuna trap.

My adventure first began last year when I traveled to Malta to intern at a tuna aquaculture research project and, as fate would have it, ended up in Sardegna at the last traditional bluefin tuna traps in Italy.  While there, I spent my days on the boat, sun beating down, watching the tonnarotti (fishermen) check and mend nets, coordinate tuna transfers, and even perform the cultural harvest of bluefin tuna in what is called la mattanza.  In that time, I heard countless stories and asked even more questions, better understanding the history of the trap and, even more so, its present struggles.  As I pulled away from the trap for the last time that summer, the turquoise sea glimmering and the fishermen waving good-bye, smiles dancing across their faces, I had a deep-seeded feeling that I had to come back.  Not only did I crave more information, but more so I felt called to share their story with as many people as possible.

That is how I am here today, exactly a year later, writing this after a day spent on the boat at the same trap in Sardegna.  Yet, before I can begin to detail my experiences, first I must explain, what exactly is a traditional tuna trap and why has it impressed me so?

In Italy, traditional tuna traps, called la tonnara, have been used to catch bluefin tuna for a thousand years, if not more.  The trap’s strategic design takes advantage of the bluefin tuna’s natural migration by extending a long series of nets, or tail, perpendicular to the coast.  As the tuna approach the tail they instinctively turn and follow the nets in the direction of the body of the trap, called la isola.  The main portion of the trap forms a rectangle composed of a series of camere, or chambers, each separated by net doors, with only the last chamber having a net floor.  Once the tuna swim through the mouth of the trap and into the first chamber, their natural migratory instinct takes over again and they swim from one chamber to the next until they arrive in the final chamber, la camera della morte, or the chamber of death.

Bluefin tuna swimming between la camera della morte (chamber of death) and a tuna cage during a tuna transfer in Sardegna. Photograph courtesy of Shannon Cosentino-Roush
Bluefin tuna swimming between la camera della morte (chamber of death) and a tuna cage during a tuna transfer in Sardegna. Photograph courtesy of Shannon Cosentino-Roush

It is from this chamber that the age-old traditional harvest of bluefin tuna, la mattanza, takes place.  Long wooden boats line the chamber with the tonnarotti pulling the net floor up slowly, hand over hand, backs braced against the weight of the many tuna, each weighing anywhere from 100 to 500 pounds, or more.  As the net rises, the tuna find themselves in increasingly shallow water and this is when the harvest begins.

In the past, la mattanza was the signature way of harvesting fish, occurring many times throughout the season, and defining the local community’s culture.  To this day, the community of Carloforte in Sardegna (where one of the last traps is located) holds a bluefin tuna festival every year, the Girotonno, which is dedicated to the community’s rich history of traditional tuna fishing and consumption.  Sadly, though the festival still remains, the reality of the traditional tuna trap fishery in Sardegna, and Italy overall, has changed severely.

Presently, only three traps remain In Italy, all in the Southwest of Sardegna.  One by one all of the rest have been forced to pull their nets from the water, including the historically renowned trap of Favignana Island in Sicily.  Even for the traps in Sardegna, the future remains uncertain.  Before last summer, I would not have fully appreciated what would be lost if the traditional tuna traps disappear from Italy completely, but now I know:  a loss of tradition, culture, local employment, and a sustainable way of fishing in an otherwise criticized fishery.

I came back this summer to share my experiences so that others can gain insight, just as I did, into a unique fishery full of history, personalities, and potential.  From tuna transfers to la mattanza and tuna tagging, my stories tell of a traditional trap fishery trying to adapt to modern day challenges, evoking questions such as: “What is the value that we place on tradition and culture?” and “Can we use traditional methods of fishing  as a way to further promote sustainability.” My posts over the upcoming weeks will begin to address some of these questions, hopefully sparking conversation about the future of this community and the fishery.



Meet the Author
Shannon Cosentino-Roush earned a B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies, a Master’s of Environmental Law and Policy, and a J.D. She is passionate about marine conservation and policy, specifically in relation to international fisheries. She has both national and international fisheries policy experience, working in the past with the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the UN FAO, the International Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance (IMCS) Network, and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). Shannon believes that the key to sustainable management of our fisheries for the future benefit of all requires cooperation and collaboration between all stakeholders from governments to NGOs and industry alike. With the goal of turning this vision into a reality, she has sought opportunities to gain increased field and industry experience in the Mediterranean, particularly related to tuna, so that she can better serve in the field of sustainable fisheries policy in the future. Shannon’s most recent blog recounts some of her experiences at a traditional tuna trap in Sardegna.